Gaming worlds are social communities for people to seek and form friendships and romantic relationships, but they can also be places where gamers experience sexual harassment and discrimination because of their gender.
In this blog we look at how female gamers, characters and developers are represented in the gaming industry, and the impact on mental health and well-being.
A 2021 survey by Reach3 Insights1 asked 900 female gamers in the US, China and Germany about the issues they face online:
Women have long reported a pervasive ‘toxic’ culture in online gaming of hostility, violence, sexual harassment and rape or death threats against them (Das, 20212). Hostility and discrimination against females are also widely documented among esports competitors. One female professional gamer said:
“Toxicity 100% exists. You have women gamers who don’t identify themselves as being female because of the fact that they don’t want to deal with the backlash in chat. You are seeing chat that is very negative for women, and that’s not fair.” (quoted in Darvin et al., 20203).
Death threats, rape threats and sexual harassment online are not only reported by female gamers, but also by researchers, academics, journalists, game creators and game reviewers who have critiqued the misogyny in gaming (Edidin, 20144; Jenson & De Castell, 20135).
In February 2021, gaming reporter Mary Gushie6 a wrote about how over a 10-year period she “received countless death threats, harassment and hurtful comments. At times it was an occasional trolling comment; other times it was dozens of comments ranging from sexism to outright toxicity and hatred. It appears that when I tailor my content to highlight issues of female representation in the games industry, I receive more hate. But the issue is not whether I can effectively advocate for women; the issue is that I and many other female journalists are receiving these types of messages based on our gender or the very topic of advocacy.”
Although women make up almost half of gamers worldwide, they do not see themselves fairly represented in video games. Female characters are often portrayed in very sexualized or misogynist ways.
An analysis7 of the top 20 video games of 2003 identified 489 separate characters with an underrepresentation of female characters (70 versus 419). The study found that “in comparison to male characters, females were significantly more likely to be shown partially nude, featured with an unrealistic body image, and depicted wearing sexually revealing clothing and inappropriate attire.”
In a 2009 study8, researchers modified a video game only with respect to how ‘sexualized’ a female character appeared and measured participant responses to self-efficacy measures. They found that “exposure to sexualized images of women in video games (among female players) may reduce confidence in their ability to succeed in the real world”.
However, things are starting to change. Despite video games still being largely “made for men, developed for men, and marketed for men”9, signaling an unwelcome space for female players, representation of women is slowly increasing. The 2019 Diversity in Gaming – Women in Gaming10 report from Currys PC World found that in the last 10 years there has been a 189% increase in games featuring playable female characters.
Despite an increase in the number of female characters in video games, there is still a lack of women taking centre stage. Although there are exceptions – such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, Nicole ‘Nico’ Collard in Broken Sword and Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn – only 20.8%11 of over 100 games released between 2017 to 2021 contained female protagonists.
The way that video game characters are portrayed can have a negative impact on how people see themselves and how others treat them. In fact, research12 shows that stereotyping in video games can contribute to eating disorders, self-objectification and body dissatisfaction among female players.
Almost half of all gamers are female but women are still underrepresented in the gaming industry. A survey13 of the distribution of game developers worldwide from 2014 to 2021 found that in 2021, 61% of game developers were men, and 30% were women (around 8% of respondents did not identify as men or women). The share of female game developers increased from 22% in 2014.
Although it’s a move in the right direction, gender bias and discrimination remain a big issue in this male-dominated industry. In 2020, The Guardian14 reported on the #MeToo movement in the games industry. Hundreds of women spoke out about the toxic and predatory behavior they been subjected to during their video game careers. A 2018 investigation by games website Kotaku into US developer Riot Games led to five former female employees suing the company over harassment and discrimination. Dozens of workers at the developer’s headquarters joined in the protest – the largest such walkout in video game industry history. In response, Riot Games promised to overhaul its workplace culture and pay out at least $10 million15 to women who had worked at the company in the last five years.
A growing number of females presenting with problematic gaming have underlying stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders after being subjected to gender discrimination and abuse while playing video games.
In just 15 hours of self-paced learning, clinicians can get equipped with skills and knowledge to help vulnerable female gamers regain control of their gaming habits.
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